Regression hypnosis: TV usually gets it wrong

Like most people, I enjoy some binge-watching of a good tv show, and I finally got around to watching “The Sinner” on Netflix last week.

If you haven’t seen it, it is about a woman who commits a murder for apparently no reason, and during the investigation of the crime she finds that there are huge gaps in her memory which may provide clues as to the motivation for the killing. It’s enjoyable enough, if you like that kind of thing. Jessica Biel does a good job of being bewildered and teary, and Bill Pullman does what he does best – acts like Bill Pullman.

In order to uncover these lost memories, it is suggested that the Jessica Biel character Cora might try hypnosis – specifically hypnotic regression. There are consequently two scenes in which a psychiatrist ostensibly leads the main character in hypnosis so that she can recover some lost memories.

Of course, it’s just fiction, it’s people acting, and it uses broad strokes…but what we see in television or film often influences our perception of things. This is especially true for things like hypnosis; it has long been a subject misrepresented for purposes of entertainment.

There are a few points we might make that relate to the depiction of hypnosis in those episodes:

  • The psychiatrist does no formal hypnotic induction, she just tells Cora to close her eyes, take a deep breath, then imagine herself in a scene.

This is not how you induce a trance state. The reality is, hypnosis is not just about deep breathing or relaxation, it’s not about imagination, and it’s not only sitting there with your eyes closed. Learn more about what hypnosis is and isn’t here.

  • While a hypnotherapist might have recognised that the highly-distressed Cora was already in an altered state (basically, already in a trance state) it wouldn’t usually be wise to dive straight in in the way it was depicted. What she goes through looks confusing, and scary, and she is not properly supported by the hypnotist. 

    As the psychiatrist in the show accurately said – revisiting traumatic memories can be re-traumatising, so it has to be attempted with care. This means that attention has to be given to the hypnotic induction, and the hypnotherapist really needs to have a plan on how they are going to proceed if the client does become upset or agitated by what their mind or memory is showing them.

    There would also need to be a plan in place so that there was therapeutic benefit to be had from the process. Just reliving or ‘uncovering’ a memory is not necessarily therapeutic.

    (As an aside – this is what PTSD is mostly about: the reliving (in hypnosis theory it is called revivification) of past trauma, over and over again. No one would argue that revisiting traumatic memories is beneficial to the person suffering from PTSD.)

We have discussed this on our blog and website before, because memory and memory recovery is a very common thing people make enquiries about.

And finally:

  • In the middle of a particularly traumatic moment, Bill Pullman’s character just butts in and tells her what to do while she is reliving her “memory”, so that he can find the Big Clue he seeks. As though memory is just like being in a role-player game, and hypnosis is just like truth-serum.

    Aside from this being laughably inappropriate, it’s also an inaccurate understanding of memory itself. Our memories are subjective, changeable, and sometimes unreliable. This is true in and out of hypnosis. Furthermore, our ability to encode memories in our brain relies on lots of different factors, and in some circumstances (such as when we are under the influence of drugs or alcohol for example) we may be unable to “create” memories. We will simply have no ‘record’ in our brain or mind to draw from.

The part we thought was pretty good was the way that her memories were visually depicted – fragmented, sometimes meaningless, often disassociated. Most of us would find it hard to describe the images we see in our mind’s eye, and this is where film and tv do a great job at conveying the dreamy, fantastical quality of our internal visions, memories, and thoughts.

Again, I enjoyed the show, and went along for the ride. But what hypnotherapists see when we watch these scenes in The Sinner are scriptwriters’ (mis)understanding of what goes on in hypnotherapy, and not accurate depictions of hypnosis.

It can be helpful for people to see these kinds of scenes in popular shows, because they prompt questions and spark possibilities. It would be great if they were done a little more accurately. 

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